J.K. Rowling, minus her soul

nov302007 966 967 lgEntertainment Weekly is an amazing magazine. I have been reading the magazine since day one and I remember thinking to myself back then, “It takes real talent and commitment to achieve such a consistently ironic, world-weary tone in your very first issue.”

America is not a nation that embraces the secular, but Entertainment Weekly manages to do so. With a few exceptions (music, for example) its sections are totally tone deaf to the role of religious faith in American life. At times, the silence and/or cynicism can be quite amazing.

Take, for example, last week’s entertainer of the year profile of J.K. Rowling. Now, this article had moments of real insight and it was, for EW, even rather touching and sincere. Here’s the heart of the piece:

Of course, the books are skillful, went the murmurs, but really, isn’t this woman merely an adept pickpocket, someone who’s synthesized a little bit of Tolkien and a dash of C.S. Lewis and some Lloyd Alexander and a wealth of British-boarding-school stories into a marketable but derivative new package?

No. As it turns out, the Harry Potter books are much richer than their progression from lightness to darkness, from childhood to adulthood, from the episodic simplicity of chapter-books to the heft and sweep of epic novels, and in their constant, book-by-book recalibration of what their readers were prepared to absorb, they’ve proven unlike anything else in a century of children’s literature. Can there be any remaining doubt that Rowling meant every word when she said, some time back, that she planned every aspect of her story ”so carefully I sometimes feel as though my brain is going to explode”?

Of course the books were carefully planned out, built on carefully researched themes and images from beginning to end. And it is now hard to deny that, at the heart of the series, is the author’s own struggle with her Christian faith.

Surely someone at EW read the remarkable MTV interview that made so many headlines? You remember, the one that said:

But if she was worried about tipping her hand narratively in the earlier books, she clearly wasn’t by the time Harry visits his parents’ graves in Chapter 16 of “Deathly Hallows,” titled “Godric’s Hollow.” On his parents’ tombstone he reads the quote “The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death,” while on another tombstone (that of Dumbledore’s mother and sister) he reads, “Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.”

While Rowling said that “Hogwarts is a multifaith school,” these quotes, of course, are distinctly Christian. The second is a direct quote of Jesus from Matthew 6:19, the first from 1 Corinthians 15:26. As Hermione tells Harry shortly after he sees the graves, his parents’ message means “living beyond death. Living after death.” It is one of the central foundations of resurrection theology. …

But while the book begins with a quote on the immortal soul — and though Harry finds peace with his own death at the end of his journey — it is the struggle itself which mirrors Rowling’s own, the author said.

As you would expect, the EW profile included a strong reference to the “Dumbledore is gay” media storm — which is totally valid. That discussion doesn’t shed much light on the content of the actual books, but it’s interesting to note that Rowling wanted to talk about her feelings about the character. She has every right to do so.

For several years now, I have been arguing that Rowling is, in fact, what her writings suggest that she is. She is a very articulate, liberal mainline Protestant storyteller (Church of Scotland, in this case) whose academic background has baptized her in ancient Christian language and symbolism. It’s hard to read the coverage of the final book in the series — heck, it’s hard to read the final book itself — without seeing evidence of both sides of this equation.

Right, EW?

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

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  • http://www.nhreligion.com Stephen A.

    My only quibble with the post is that America has surely had no trouble at all embracing the secular. The evidence is overwhelming on that point.

    As for the article, I found it the standard too-clever-by-half snarkfest, complete with Bush bashing. And yes, utterly devoid of religion. I actually think the MTV article, including Bible verses, was rather refreshing and at least tried to exaplain that aspect of her writing.

    Terry’s analysis of who Rowling is and what she’s accomplished with the books is exactly right.

  • http://uuwithoutborders.blogspot.com Jaume

    These Christian connotations in Rowling’s books are fine for scholars of literature and of religious studies, but they are irrelevant for a showbiz magazine such as Entertainment. I find quite ok that they rather bypass the issue. And the books should stand as fiction by themselves, not hanging from their alleged connections to religious themes, be they Christian or otherwise.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    Jaume:

    You are in pretty serious denial, here. There is no “alleged” to it. The symbols are fact. They are what they are and the author says they were intentional. Then the author herself has identified the uniting religious question and theme. No “alleged” there, either. The author cannot “allege.”

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  • http://uuwithoutborders.blogspot.com Jaume

    tmatt, by definition, a symbol is not “fact”. It is a symbol, which is naturally open to interpretation. There are many works of fiction that include symbols. Many people see Gnostic themes in “The Matrix” movies, for example. Others have seen Christian themes, or Buddhist themes. However, either the movies work well on screen or they don’t, with supposed Gnostic symbolism or without it. Likewise in literature. If Rowling had a religious purpose in writing her books, well, she could have written some RE stories for children or teenager, about Noah’s Ark or whatever. However she wrote fiction about a young student of wizardry. It is fine that some experts come later with their analysis of symbols, connotations and influences. But that is not entertainment, it is scholarship.

  • csmith

    Jaume-

    I agree with you that the books should stand “as fiction by themselves” but think you’re stretching a long way to call Rowling’s connections to Christian themes “alleged”.

    The MTV interview correctly notes that, as Rowling wrapped up the series, she showed her hand by quoting directly from the Bible to tie up some of the larger story elements that ran through the series. As a reader I was quite surprised by how overt the references were in the final book.

    To say that writing about “Noah’s Ark or whatever” would have been the path to take if she had a religious purpose really misses the point that literature can use virtually any kind of story to reflect the author’s personal journey.

  • http://TheCultureBeat Alex Wainer

    Terry,
    Regarding the EW treatment, I believe it was written by editor Mark Harris, who is married to playwright Tony Kushner. I wonder if professing Christian EW writer, Jeff Jensen, would have included more of the Christian elements. It does matter who writes these pieces. BTW, Jensen wrote the current cover story on The Golden Compass controversy.

  • momly

    EW wrote the piece with their angle. Their angle is secular. You are surprised?

  • http://TheCultureBeat Alex Wainer

    No, not suprised. But the faith angle could conceivably have been included if written by another staffer who was more aware of what Rowling herself has said about those elements. Sure, and an editor could have removed it–but faith content does enter in, as Jensen’s writings have shown.


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